Grace Wales Bonner is the perfect designer for now

Grace Wales Bonner in blazer (designer’s own), Wales Bonner Long River Shirt ($725), Wales Bonner Harmony pants ($850), Wales Bonner Earth loafer ($650). Stylist: Adonis Kentros. Groomer: Maria Comparetto.
Grace Wales Bonner in blazer (designer’s own), Wales Bonner Long River Shirt ($725), Wales Bonner Harmony pants ($850), Wales Bonner Earth loafer ($650). Stylist: Adonis Kentros. Groomer: Maria Comparetto. (Koto Bolofo for The Washington Post)

Her clothes combine British tailoring with the sensibilities of the African diaspora. And she is making her mark on fashion with astonishing speed.

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It has been only two days since Queen Elizabeth II was, with great fanfare, laid to rest, and London feels like a city on the back end of exhaustion. Ten days of public mourning unfolded with precisely choreographed pageantry that extended from Buckingham Palace to Windsor Castle. With a two-part, globally televised funeral, the world had ample time to consider its feelings about the British monarchy.

British identity had long been wrapped up in the dignified personage of a white-haired woman in brightly colored suits who had the patient mien of a grandmother. In a commute across central London on a late September afternoon, I see handmade signs that read “Thank you, ma’am” propped in windows, columns of British flags fluttering in the breeze, and wilted flowers paying homage to her 70-year reign — her decades of devotion to the way things had always been.

But British history — which is, among other things, a centuries-old saga of colonialism and racism — is complicated, and so is the present. Complications are at the heart of everything that Grace Wales Bonner does. She is whom I’ve come to London to see. “Complicated” is the word the London-born fashion designer uses when I ask whether she mourned the queen and how she feels about the legacy Her Majesty represented.

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My question isn’t a matter of small talk but curiosity born from Wales Bonner’s design philosophy as well as her family’s lineage. She is mixed race; her mother is White and English and her father is Black and Jamaican. Her collections explore the thorny issues inherent in that identity: diversity, imperialism, wealth and privilege. Her work forces a conversation about who and what is heralded as divine.

By asking about the queen, I am inviting Wales Bonner to hold forth. But she isn’t one to pontificate, either verbally or aesthetically. Her collections aren’t the equivalent of a radical uprising using bolts of fabric as weaponry; they are more like a civil debate. “I don’t feel like I’m combative,” she says. “I create space.”

When she addresses my question, she does so in false starts and backward glances. She argues the affirmative side as well as the opposing one. “I feel like there’s so much instability at the moment. Maybe there always has been, but it feels more visible now, and so I think [the queen] seemed like a figure that created some sense of stability,” Wales Bonner says. “But I think it’s complicated.”

“Growing up here, what you’re actually told, what you read, what you’re told when you’re at school about history is not very clear. This moment reveals a lot about people’s experiences and what you’re exposed to. And that’s quite uncomfortable,” she continues. “There’s tradition and it makes me feel English. … It’s kind of unbelievable, this sense of tradition that’s carried forward, the visual, processional elements. That’s interesting.” She says once more, “It’s complicated. … I have mixed feelings.”

Wales Bonner’s clothes express a multitude of emotions that the designer can’t quite express in words. They embrace the precision of traditional British tailoring, the kind that made Savile Row synonymous with White male authority, and marry it with the vast aesthetic sensibilities of the African diaspora, from the continent to the Caribbean. She admires the reassuring rigor of her Britishness but finds a certain euphoria in pressing against its constraints.

She launched her menswear brand in London seven years ago and with astonishing speed made a mark on the fashion industry thanks to her distinctive designs and the stories that accompany them. Her spring 2017 collection was as close as any might come to career defining. The clothing was dignified and regal, but instead of looking to historical depictions of European royalty or Asian dynasties for inspiration, which is standard practice in fashion, Wales Bonner turned to Africa. She paid homage to the coronation of Haile Selassie I, who was emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974. The elegance of her collection defied the cliches, assumptions and prejudices about this vast part of the world. Most often, designers in Europe and the United States turn to Africa to express some variation on primitive or tribal. Wales Bonner evoked majesty.

Mostly Black models wore tailored blazers, embellished capes and trousers that were cropped to echo the proportion of knickers. The shirts were crisp cotton or shimmered with the patina of satin. And there were pristine, white suits that stirred up visions of men at leisure, glorified men, dazzling men.

Wales Bonner has created many memorable collections since then. Her business now includes womenswear, as well as a recent addition of accessories and jewelry. She has a long-established partnership with Adidas. And her renown has spread beyond the small community of fashion insiders who were her early champions to a global community of shoppers.

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“If you are looking for someone who has a very intelligent approach to design, who is really catering to someone that is intellectual, that’s creative, that’s in the art scene, that knows tailoring as well as they know athleisure, then that’s exactly why you should shop Grace’s brand,” says Libby Page, market director for Net-a-Porter. “Whilst the business is small, comparatively speaking, we’ve seen some really healthy pockets of opportunity.” Page adds, “She’s really one to watch in the next couple of years.”

Her combination of tradition, polite subversiveness and cultural engagement, along with a keen eye for construction, has been irresistible to a fashion industry struggling to find its way forward — a business trying to attract younger and more diverse clients who are quick to say that they want clothing with a progressive purpose. Wales Bonner is a formally trained designer who makes a conversation about race invigorating. She stands in the middle of the cultural maelstrom and puts forward difficult and important observations that feel intimate but not ad hominem.

It’s no wonder that there’s been significant industry chatter that she might be named the next menswear designer at Louis Vuitton, a job that would have her succeeding Virgil Abloh, who died in 2021 and was the rare Black designer to climb into the upper echelons of luxury fashion. “The fact that Louis Vuitton is being rumored, it just goes to show that she came into the industry and really has made change to the way people are dressing,” Page says. “I think that in itself is something that she should be proud of, and that is a testament to how great her brand is.”

If the position should become hers, she would be a woman helming the menswear division of a legacy fashion house, which would be no small thing: The percentage of women leading any fashion company is, by one estimation, 12.5 percent. Those overseeing a menswear brand are further outliers and include women who were born into a family business. Yet even within that small sorority, Wales Bonner would be atypical: She’s specifically captivated by the beautiful complexity of Black men and the culture they embody.

She is, in short, a rarity — one who may be the perfect designer for now. And for what it’s worth, she did not stand in line to curtsy to the queen’s casket. Instead, she was working.

For some designers, their origin story is something to transcend. They spend their careers playing against type. For others, it’s a case study in improbability. With Wales Bonner, her beginning makes her present seem almost inevitable. She grew up in south London. Her mother is a business consultant and her father, a lawyer. They separated when she was young, and her childhood was defined in part by geography and logistics. Shuttling between her mother’s affluent, predominantly White neighborhood and her father’s more ethnically diverse one, Wales Bonner regularly crossed a racial divide with all the attendant social and economic elements that implies. She saw White privilege and the richness of Blackness, the power of money and of the mind.

Her parents chose careers that valued order and a methodical nature; Wales Bonner, who is a middle child — with two sisters and two brothers — has a similarly sober disposition. There are no outsize, extraneous embellishments to her ensemble when we meet; mostly she’s wearing black. Petite, with a tawny complexion, she wears her dark hair smoothed back into a bun. She has an oval face, and when she’s looking at you dead on, her presence is understated and spare. And then she tilts her head to the side and the light glances off the angles of her face, and that’s when you notice the cheekbones and the chiseled chin.

The facets of Wales Bonner, 32, reveal themselves slowly. She is not quick to guffaw with a stranger. When you’re introduced to her, you do not immediately feel as though this is someone you’ve known forever. You will get to know her as she will get to know you. In a world that engages in false intimacy and performative friendliness, Wales Bonner’s reserve is calming. Perhaps this is just a facade, but she seems to be someone who has made peace with the silences in a conversation; she will pause and think.

“Growing up, being a teenager in London, the school I went to was very, very diverse,” she says. “And the different places I lived when I was a teenager, I was exposed to a lot of different communities. The environment that I grew up in has informed what I do. But I think also because I have mixed heritage … I’ve always had to negotiate my identity.” Her father is a child of the Windrush generation — a group that came to Britain between 1948 and 1971 from Caribbean countries. He consumed the poetry of Derek Walcott and Dylan Thomas and shared both with her. As she moved through school, race was present both in fact and in theory. Education was a tool for coping and understanding her place in a culture that dealt in extremes rather than subtleties.

She graduated in 2014 from Central Saint Martins, the London art school that produced some of the fashion industry’s most influential designers such as Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, Sarah Burton, Stella McCartney and Riccardo Tisci. She entered as a design student and along the way considered art direction and writing. Ultimately, however, she realized that the stories she wanted to tell were best communicated through clothing, a visual medium that is artful and also deeply personal. During that time I was very interested in identity and representation,” she says. “That was more of a self-driven practice.” She devoured bookish research and wrote a thesis that digested the work of artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kerry James Marshall. She looked to blaxploitation films and Afro-Carribbean poets. And when she showed her graduation collection, with its merger of European opulence and Black culture, her classmates could see what she had been reading by looking at her clothing: “They kind of understood the world that I was coming from. It wasn’t necessarily really intentional. It was just that it was all embedded in what I was doing, and people could feel that.”

She was inspired by Raf Simons, Phoebe Philo and Miuccia Prada — designers who embody restraint, or whose work refuses the traditional trappings of gender and beauty. She was particularly enamored with Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. “I was interested in her personal style and bringing in more elements considered kind of more masculine and timeless,” Wales Bonner says. “I really like when clothing is put together in a way that everything feels important; it’s not too much and quite balanced with harmonious elements. And the craftsmanship of the jackets, I like how they’re made and how they’re weighted and everything like that.”

While in school, she spent several months interning in New York at American Vogue and working for the stylist Camilla Nickerson. She was enthralled watching Nickerson and seeing the way in which she researched history or art and then infused her fashion shoots with that knowledge. She was also excited to be around the hum of efficiency and creativity that were defining features of Vogue during that time. Wales Bonner wasn’t tripped up by Vogue’s lack of diversity. She was energized by its female authorship.

“Women were in charge, you know? Women like Anna Wintour, and Grace Coddington was there as well, and Camilla — these women that were influencing the industry at such a high level,” she says of the three British editors. “It’s probably the first environment where I saw a lot of women really driving things professionally. And it was quite an informative age and they were doing things at the highest level, with the highest standard.”

“I’ve been able to find my voice through fashion. There’s an immediacy about creating clothing. It’s very direct. You don’t need to read an essay to understand something.”

Soon after graduating from Central Saint Martins, she launched her own brand, an entrepreneurial leap that has become standard for young designers. By 2016, she’d won the LVMH fashion prize, which, in addition to providing a cash award and professional mentoring, put her in conversation with the jury’s industry veterans who were impressed by the quality of her work along with its exploration of Black identity. “I think she has something very interesting to say, and it feels like she has a lot more to say,” designer and juror Phoebe Philo told Women’s Wear Daily after the award was announced. “You can see she’s figuring that out through her fashion.”

For Wales Bonner, the prize was validation. “I think it probably helped more with my confidence — that what I’m doing was appreciated or seemed important,” she says. It didn’t take long for Wales Bonner to become what she had so admired at Vogue: a professional woman working at the highest standard.

The Wales Bonner brand is headquartered on the Strand, in an imposing brutalist building not far from Trafalgar Square. It shares real estate with other extremely cool fashion brands, advertising firms and media groups. The office lacks the typical accoutrements of most fashion companies: There are no monumental bouquets of fresh flowers; no jungle of orchids is in evidence. If there is a library of Rizzoli and Taschen fashion biographies on-site, it is behind closed doors.

Several rolling racks of clothes are pushed against white walls, and the center of a room the size of a studio apartment is dominated by tall bookcases in industrial white that are close to overflowing. In fact, the space may contain more books on art and Black history than there are clothes. The books tell the story of a designer intent on presenting the world from an alternative perspective. Exhibition catalogues document the work of renowned artists Betye Saar, Theaster Gates, Kehinde Wiley, Deana Lawson; public intellectuals Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Kwame Anthony Appiah speak through their writings. There’s even a Howard University Bison yearbook. These are all Black voices. And so whether one looks at this library and declares it an ode to Black culture, or simply a celebration of humankind’s creativity and intellectual might, is a matter of perspective. It depends on who’s writing the story. “A lot of my influences really come from outside of fashion,” she says. “It’s literature; it’s music, photography, art.”

She works with a team of 16 people, including two who are in charge of academic research. Her show notes can read like a course offering in art history or Black studies, with an appendix of recommended reading. She doesn’t just hire a DJ to create a playlist for a presentation, she co-curates one and tries to reflect the sounds and rhythms of the music in the clothing itself. Fashion is her way of participating in a larger cultural and creative conversation. It’s her way of getting inside the room and standing with other young artists such as filmmaker Jeano Edwards and photographer Tyler Mitchell. She doesn’t just want to make clothes. She wants to express herself. “I’ve been able to find my voice through fashion. There’s an immediacy about creating clothing. It’s very direct. You don’t need to read an essay to understand something,” Wales Bonner says. With fashion, “you can feel it — just by looking.”

She has explored creative possibilities in places that the fashion industry has yet to fully plunder. She has internalized the literature of James Baldwin and Ishmael Reed; she has found common cause with the contemporary art of David Hammons — creator of the African American flag with its red and black stripes, and stars on a field of green. She is specific. She isn’t moved by just any form of jazz but by the jazz musician Alice Coltrane. “I’m interested in artists and photography around the Black Atlantic,” Wales Bonner says. “I like collecting or library building. I’m interested in this idea of archiving as well, with working with existing materials, and having a relationship with history and lineage and what’s come before. I see my position and role as about transmitting some of that lineage to the future. I’m interested in kind of revealing beauty that has existed across time and channeling that through fashion.”

If you look at her work, whether it’s the formal tailoring or her collaboration with Adidas, the lines and colors and patterns connect the past to the present; they suggest new ways of defining beauty and luxury in the future. There’s a bit of the 1960s portraiture of Malian photographer Malick Sidibé in the slim silhouette of a suit. There’s more than a little self-satisfied elegance in the velvet jackets and embroidered details that makes one think of Wiley’s life-size renderings of Black men in heroic circumstances. And in her colors, one can see the 1970s swagger of an urbane gentleman as depicted by Barkley Hendricks. It’s all there. Absorbed into the clothes.

“Early things I was interested in is the idea of value and an idea of luxury coming from a certain place,” Wales Bonner says. “I wanted to bring things that are different, from different places or approaches, and give that the same space as another tradition. There’s a sense of hybridity, a sense of appreciation of these heritage brands, European brands like Dior and Chanel and thinking about that origin story and the idea of the maison, and the sense of creation and value and all that. But at the same time, for me, it was about bringing an Afro-Atlantic spirit to the idea of luxury.”

To explain what she means by “Afro-Atlantic spirit,” she refers to the work of Robert Farris Thompson, the pioneering Yale University scholar who studied the cultures of Africa and the Americas and transformed the thinking about the relationship between those worlds. Thompson, who died in 2021 at 88, coined the phrase “Black Atlantic” to describe an interconnected global culture, one with strands running through the visual arts, music, dance, religion and sociology. He was instrumental in welcoming what academics and critics long referred to as “primitive” art into the canon of fine arts. He argued that Black culture was more than anthropology. And in doing so, he highlighted the links between Africa and, well, just about everything. “Most of our ballroom dancing is Africanized,” Thompson told Rolling Stone in 1984. “The rumba, the tango, even tap-dancing and the Lindy. Fried chicken is African. And J. Press patchwork shorts may be related to an African fabric. Even cheerleading incorporates some apparent Kongo gestures: left hand on hip, right hand raised twirling a baton.”

This connecting of the cultural dots is something that’s particularly urgent in the arts in general and in fashion specifically. The art exhibition “Afro-Atlantic Histories,” which was assembled in Brazil and traveled to Washington’s National Gallery of Art earlier this year, highlighted artistic conversation between both sides of the Atlantic. And in London, the Victoria and Albert Museum has mounted “Africa Fashion” — a survey of modern African style, including designers, photographers and accessory makers.

Much of the work in “Africa Fashion” is dazzling in its mix of prints and fabrics; designers use fabrics such as wax cloth and mud cloth while incorporating silks and French lace. It’s an informative exhibition and asks its audience to lean into the breadth of African creativity — but it’s also a frustrating exhibition. How do you go about reconciling centuries of disregard? A single season of Wales Bonner’s work is a more stirring expression of Africa’s creative reach than what’s on display in the winding galleries of the V&A.

Menswear has long been a small part of the fashion industry, with revenue about one-third that of the women’s market in the United States. Historically, change has been slow and incremental. Wales Bonner chose menswear as her foundational language precisely because of its long-standing rigidity, its strict parameters and aversion to upheaval. It’s easier to stand out as bold and subversive in a field where skinny suits once reverberated like an exploding grenade.

In the past decade, however, many of the most significant shifts in fashion have first taken root in the men’s business — street style, athleisure apparel, sneaker mania — before eventually populating the entire fashion market. Womenswear has always borrowed from the men’s department and called it Annie Hall style, minimalism or androgyny. Today, it’s menswear that’s forcing a total reconsideration of gendered presumptions. Wales Bonner is part of that push. She presents her men’s and women’s collections together during the men’s runway season. “She’s blurred the lines between the women’s and men’s collection. … So if you’re a man, you feel like you can shop the women’s pieces and vice versa,” says Page of Net-a-Porter. “And there’s a really beautiful fluidity to the collections.”

For centuries, women have been dressed by male designers; they have been subject to a male gaze. But how do men look to women? How do Black men, who are so often vilified or hypersexualized, look to Wales Bonner?

For her spring 2023 collection, which she presented in Florence during Pitti Uomo, the menswear trade shows, the models walked through the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, one of the city’s Renaissance monuments and a reminder of the enduring imprint of Europe on the cultural landscape. But artistry from Burkina Faso and Ghana was also present, in the cottons and the glass-bead jewelry. The room was draped with jute — the bags were once used for transporting cocoa beans — in an installation created by the Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama. The message was simple: This is all luxury. This is all art, from Europe to Africa. Geography doesn’t have to define value.

And the men? They were beautiful, elegant and regal. They were tall and lanky. Delicate. Their dark skin was unblemished. Their resting expression was one of contentment. They didn’t lumber or stomp; they glided. They looked unburdened. And in today’s world, that’s a powerful, almost fantastical, statement.

One of the looks in that show was a T-shirt printed with a detail from artist Kerry James Marshall’s 1993 painting “Lost Boys: AKA Black Sonny.” Even without a detailed explanation of the collaboration, and its charitable bona fides, it’s immediately recognizable as a Marshall image: the audacious Blackness, the specificity of Sonny, the humanity. “He’s one of my biggest inspirations,” Wales Bonner says of the artist. “There’s something about the level of beauty that he presents in his work; it’s very seductive and I think that was interesting to me: You can draw people over through beauty. Beauty can be quite strategic.”

Another of Marshall’s admirers, Nigerian American writer Teju Cole, described the essence of the artist’s work this way: “Kerry James Marshall is looking for what’s not there. No, not quite. Kerry James Marshall is looking for what is there but not seen. Well, almost. Try again. Kerry James Marshall is looking for what is there but not seen by them. That’s it.”

For Marshall, art history is something that is constructed. It’s not inevitable. The same is true of fashion history and its accompanying myths. It’s something that the industry collectively creates and shores up season after season. Wales Bonner refuses to accept fashion’s inevitability. “When I first started Wales Bonner in 2015, I felt like there was a limited way that Black culture was represented within fashion, within that space. There was a wealth of my own experience and connections — like spiritually and ancestrally and across time — and [fashion] wasn’t representing that,” she says. “So for me, my work was really about just revealing something that maybe is quite familiar to us that maybe is not historically represented within fashion.”

Indeed, what Wales Bonner is illuminating has always been present but has gone unseen by fashion’s legacy brands — by the industry’s midcareer Eurocentric adherents, and even by many of the next-generation designers who have been admirably determined to offer a broader definition of beauty, desire and power. Like the face of one of Marshall’s jet black lost boys, there’s nuance and complexity in Blackness. If you bother to look, to really look, details reveal themselves.

Wales Bonner was making her case for the humanity, dignity and individuality of Black men before black squares began to appear in the social media of fashion brands, before “woke” made the linguistic journey from a value to a pejorative. She was telling her stories about a global Black culture before social justice protests erupted around the world. “It kind of reaffirmed everything, the importance of what I’m trying to do and the consistency of it,” she says.

She’s not trying to upend fashion. Or the culture. She’s aiming to bring clarity. I don’t feel like I’m an outsider, like I’m outside the system. I’m quite in. I like structure,” Wales Bonner says. “For me, it’s about disrupting something from within.”